Daigaku Z: Ainu You Are But What Am I?

Daigaku Z:

Daigaku Z is a weekly column describing Z’s journey to learn the Japanese language while at the University of Pittsburgh. She impressed the East Asian Language and Literature department with her first-year performance, but she stumbled over the summer semester’s Accelerated Program course. Still, she is nothing if not persistent, and now she faces the second year of the program once more. This is (the continuation of) her story.

One of the major themes that should have been obvious in this column by now is the fact that regardless of our individual circumstances, none of us are ever truly alone. We exist on this planet as a part of something greater, interconnected in ways we never understand or even notice. Faced with this fact, I have ever asserted that hate is an irrational choice: that in denying someone else their fundamental rights to existence and happiness we rob those same things from ourselves, as well. Xenophobia can be deadly if not countered by discovery.

Nowhere else in my studies has this ever been hammered home as hard as it was this past week, where in the starting lessons of Aspects of the Japanese Language we discussed and examined the Ainu language and its relation to ancient Japanese. This lesson, which started off rather clinical, quickly became heart-wrenching when it was revealed that the Ainu language is moribund– not yet dead, but in a terminal state nonetheless. When the last few native Ainu speakers die, which will be soon, the language will be effectively extinct in its original state. See, despite efforts to learn the language, anyone speaking it as an acquired language (that is, not their first language) will inject accents and mutations from their native language.

As time goes on, these mutations will add up, until the language would be completely unintelligible to the people who spoke it as their birth-tongue. It’s like that scene in Stargate where Dr. Jackson’s attempts to speak ancient Egyptian to the people on the other side of the gate come across as comically awful. And actually, we see that in a more real-world circumstance. After all, what the Vatican speaks as Latin has become Italian outside of the Holy See.

With the Ainu, however, the situation is a bit more troublesome. Japan has a notorious history of attempting to forcibly assimilate Ainu into Japanese culture, not entirely dissimilar from the United States’ treatment of its native populations. There is a strange self-exoticization effect going on with the Japanese and the Ainu; the culture is appreciated and highly valued, but the people born into it are increasingly forced to abandon that culture. There are exceptions, of course– a group known as the Ainu Rebels sought to preserve some Ainu traditional dance and song while also modernizing it– but it is a losing battle.

I want to stress that this problem could have been avoided, but now cannot be un-done. We cannot restore the Ainu culture to its former glory, just as the Seneca Nation cannot be brought back to its dominance of the Northeast. The sins of humanity are indelibly carved into our history. But what we can do is to prevent it in the future. Already we are seeing historical sites and artifacts destroyed by fanatics and madmen intent on not creating nations, but rather on brutish domination.

We must preserve our past, because without it we have no future.